3D Robotics

Lesson: Don't fly planes over secure National Labs!

I had the wackiest near-catastrophe this weekend. My kids and I were running aerial mapping patterns over the Lawrence Berkeley Labs cyclotron (which is very distinctive from the air) and testing some ISO settings on the Pentax A30. Because we were over a built-up area and had to hand launch and recover from a hillside, we were using the Mutiplex EasyStar, which is just an RC plane, not a UAV. Which means that it's all up to the pilot to keep things in hand.

Unfortunately I was the pilot for one run where the sun was in exactly the wrong position and I got momentarily blinded. When I found the EasyStar again I couldn't tell what it's orientation was. Needless to say, ten seconds later it was in the top of the highest tree inside the gate of a super-secure National Laboratory. Yikes.

I dropped the kids off at home and went to the main gate of the lab and explained what happened. To my astonishment, they neither laughed at me nor arrested me. Instead, the head of security escorted me to the cyclotron and we started looking around. I went and got the transmitter and gunned the motor, and eventually we were able to find the plane by following the sound. Sure enough, it was 60 ft off the ground in the tree and really wedged in.

There wasn't much to be done, but at least we'd located it. I left my contact details and we agreed to have me come by the next weekend and see if the wind had budged it at all. Then I went home.

Half an hour later I got a call from the lab. "How would you feel about us using a hose to knock it down?" Needless to say, the risk of water damage seemed a lot better than losing the whole thing, camera, GPS, radio and all. "Go for it!" I said and dashed down the hill again to see what I could do.

When I got there it looked like the scene of a real airplane crash. A lab fire engine with lights flashing was at the base of the tree and searchlights had pinpointed the plane. Hoses snaked across the road and emergency radios were squawking. A fireman was braced against the truck and was about to let loose a high-pressure stream at the plane.

It actually turned out to be harder than it looked, given how high the plane was and how dense the tree was. They had to replenish the water tank once from a fire hydrant before they finally knocked it to the ground. The foam wings and tail were torn off (that's okay--they're just $20 to replace), but the fuselage and the all-important electronics were all there. I thanked everyone profusely and took it all home to dry things out and gauge the damage.

Right now the radio, motor and GPS look fine. The camera is going to have to dry out more before I can tell if it's going to be okay [UPDATE: It's fine!] , and so too for the LiPo battery. But I'm so pleased to get the rest back that I hardly care. Meanwhile, the image data on the card was really pretty good (a PTGui stitch of one pass is above).

Thanks LBL guards and firemen! I promise not to fly planes over your super-secure lab again!

E-mail me when people leave their comments –

You need to be a member of diydrones to add comments!

Join diydrones


  • glad you were able to get your equipment back and everyone was helpful. i've been fortunate regarding losses so far but flying over trees or large bodies of water always make me nervous.  i did lose one aircraft to a local tree. i spent hours trying to knock it out with various things... footballs, tennis balls, slingshot, fishing rod. i went back daily until it rained. after a good soaking rain i assumed most of the electronics were probably ruined. the airframe was depron but it was destroyed by the various objects i struck it with. i gave up after a week. that was two years ago.... i wonder if i should go back and see if it's still there!

  • Good story and so very nice of them to help you retrieve the plane. Might want to think about sending over a box of doughnuts as a token of your appreciation ;-)
  • It's obviously not that secure.
  • 3D Robotics
    No Gyro mount; just the usual hole in the bottom of the EasyStar. That meant I really had to line it up properly for relatively level flight on each pass. But PTGui is good at warping and otherwise correcting for banked shots, so it came out well despite some wiggles along the way.
  • Moderator
    Ah the old sun in the wrong place excuse.

    I often fly and the wrong kind of wind comes through.

    In fact I'm preparing to try a power pylon on my trainer in a few minutes time and that might well be my excuse if I come back with bits.

    Very impressed with the stitched together images, downloaded the free version straight away.


    through.in - This website is for sale! - through Resources and Information.
    This website is for sale! through.in is your first and best source for all of the information you’re looking for. From general topics to more of what…
  • WOW! We have had some close scrapes, but this one takes the cake. I will remember to turn down the trim on the anxiety throttle next time something like this happens to us. Great story!
  • Well I am very glad you got your plane back in one pi...ohh yeah. ..Got you plane back.. ;-)

    I am also quite pleased that the security officials were reasonable people. It pains me when folks become reactionary when a little thought and empathy can make more pleasant experiences for all. I am an optimist so i hope this continues (except for the crashing!)

    Well done and great photo montage. Did you use one of your Gyro mounts?
This reply was deleted.